Sunday, 24 November 2013

Cittie of Yorke, London

The Cittie of Yorke is a grand old Sam Smiths pub in Holborn on the outskirts of the City of London, the financial heart of the capital. It's also Google Chrome's spellcheck worst nightmare: it knows the words in the pubs name are spelt incorrectly and by gum it wants to correct them! The pubs location means two things, firstly it's full of braying chaps in suits and secondly Sam Smiths have cottoned on that Londoners and confused tourists will pay anything for a beer and have jacked up the prices accordingly. Living in London has brainwashed me so much it's come to the point where I say "£3.40 for a pint of Old Brewery Bitter, that's not bad" rather than going "You're having a laugh mate!" and immediately leaving the pub for the nearest Tesco's and stocking up on the cheapest booze I can find.

The main hall of the Cittie of Yorke is a dramatic place for a drink, featuring a high vaulted ceiling, barrels above drinkers lining the sides of the walls and cosy little booths down one side of the hall. There's a plainer room at the front of the pub and a cosy cellar as well. Despite the place looking really old and impressing every American who visits, the main hall was apparently rebuilt in 1924, although a pub has supposedly stood on the spot since the fifteenth Century. But it seems just about every building in London claims to have had a similar business on its spot since the fifteenth Century, except perhaps PC World and Ryman the Stationer, so I don't know how much truth there is to the claim.

Being a Sam Smith's pub the Cittie of Yorke only serves the Sam Smiths range, even down to the soft drinks and crisps. I like to think that Sam Smiths is the original "craft" brewery, doing their own takes on many different beer styles and the niggling feeling that they think all the big brewer's stuff is crap and theirs is much better. Basically they're BrewDog but Sam Smiths have been doing it since 1758. Beer wise I started off with a pint of the Sovereign Bitter. This was on keg and I was worried that by drinking this my CAMRA card would spontaneously burst into flames in my wallet and ruin my trousers. The beer tasted fine, but being keg it did have a little artificial, chemical flavour. Overall though it was drinkable. The Old Brewery Bitter was on cask and was in good nick, and although this reliable bitter is never going to set taste buds alight it was comforting on this chilly winters eve.

I've been through Sam Smiths draught range many times, especially in my student days back when the London outlets were cheap and the prices perfectly suited my budget. As I am now grown up and employed I thought I would treat myself to some of their bottled beers. I ordered a Winter Welcome Ale and a bag of pork scratchings. The cold but efficient barmaid asked for an amount around the £7.50 mark. "How much was the beer?!" I asked in befuddlement. "£6." I came over a little faint but somehow managed to remain standing upright. But soon the enormity sank in. SIX POUNDS FOR A BEER IN A SAM SMITHS PUB. Why didn't I ask for the price before ordering?! The beer had better be bloody good and luckily it wasn't to bad. Slightly sweet with caramel notes this went down well. But not six pounds well.

Somehow I didn't learn my lesson and I went for another bottled beer, this time the Nut Brown Ale. There's not more to stay except this was exactly as what was described on the label and it reminded me of this Brass Eye skit:

I finally finished with a Pale Ale which was pretty good, light and hoppy and a pleasure to drink. Both these bottles were £5.50 so all in all I spent £17 on three beers in a Sam Smiths pub. And this is why the world is now a horrible place to be in. I don't often get political but Mr Cameron if you're reading this, forget about minimum alcohol pricing and all that malarkey. Instead please embark on a campaign to make Sam Smiths in London cheap again. Thanks. And also stop reading this blog you've got more important things to do.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Spreadeagle, Croydon and a return to the General Wolfe

Croydon must have seemed amazing to visitors back in the 60's. I can imagine visitors being enthralled as they drove their Ford Cortina down a sweeping dual carriageway buffered by soaring multi storey buildings. There's even an underpass in case tall buildings scare you. It would have been a shining beacon to the adversity of Britain, that a shimmering new town can rise from the rubble of bombed out ruins. I'm probably romanticising it a bit but I like to think Croydon was exciting once. Sadly nowadays it's pretty grim, the buildings ageing and imposing, the roads unable to cope with the 21st century levels of traffic, and the people ready to stab you at a moments notice. However Croydon does have a Waitrose and an artisan bakery has recently sprung up, so maybe things are looking up.

Nestled in the rather grubby town centre, across the road from the cultural delights of Tiger Tiger and the 80's Reflex bar, is The Spread Eagle. A large Fullers Ale & Pie house it is a welcoming, cosy oasis in the wilds of Croydon. It boasts an impressive interior, with two large chandeliers above the bar and a sweeping staircase to one side. The place was busy but me and The Lovely Jemma managed to grab a seat on some sofa's in the corner. The long bar serves the standard Fullers ale range, and although a guest beer from the local Cronx brewery was advertised on a blackboard behind the bar, it appears it was off as there was no mention of it on the handpulls.

I never find the Fullers range very exciting. I usually resort to getting a Chiswick or a ESB depending on how pissed I'm willing to get, but with neither on offer I started with a HSB from Gale's. This ended up being a good choice of pint for a chilly Autumn's day. Dark in colour with a rich, fruity taste, it was in perfect condition and went down a treat. I then opted for a half of the Fuller's seasonal Black Cab Stout. This was a perfectly pleasant stout with the coffee and toffee flavours present and correct, but it seemed to play it safe taste wise. Nothing too strong or threatening, it was almost like a stout for beginners. If you're ever unfortunate to be in Croydon and want a drink I can definitely recommend this place. Good beer, good atmosphere and also less chance of bumping into the unsavoury characters you get in the The George down the road.

The General Wolfe in Westerham is a pub I have blogged about previously. Since that last post, the place has been taken over by a new landlord, has had a refurb and has lost its place in the Good Beer Guide. I made a return visit last weekend to see how the place was post-refurbishment. Walking in it was initially hard to tell the difference the refurb had made. The layout is pretty much the same and the general decor hasn't changed much. But the furniture has been replaced and is looking much fresher, and the bar appears to have been extended, with the number of handpumps increased from three to five.

The beer selection was never very exotic pre-refurb but the ale was always in good condition. Now with an expanded range I'm pleased to say the beer is still in good nick. I tried the house beer, General Wolfe from Greene King. I suspect this is a re-badged beer, I initially thought maybe Old Speckled Hen, although it was only 3.9%. It was pretty good, a full bodied bitter with a fruity hoppy finish. I also tried a half of the guest beer, Brewers Gold from Whistable Brewery, which wasn't as good but was still pleasant with gentle light bitter notes. A food menu was available but I didn't see anybody eating, even on a busy Saturday afternoon. It looks like the regulars come here for a pint rather than a bite to eat.

With the decent beer and polite, prompt service this pub was looking like a winner. But unfortunately the atmosphere was a bit like having a pint in a retirement home. Me and The Lovely Jemma were the youngest people there by a long, long way. It was all very cosy but I started feeling a bit uncomfortable and we had to leave after a couple of halves as we just felt out of place there. It was the first pub I'd been to in a long time where the clientèle was exclusively oldies. Maybe at other times the pub has more mix in the customer age group.

That's it for now. See you next Sunday!

Sunday, 10 November 2013


Last weekend I was in Chester to attend the wedding of two close friends. It was a wonderful ceremony held at the historic Chester Town Hall. Two things are inevitable at any wedding I attend.. First I will blub my way through the vows, especially when either the bride or groom (or both) start weeping. Secondly at the reception I will dance like Mick Jagger having a seizure while trying to dance on a ice rink wearing bowling shoes. Chester Town Hall was a lovely venue to hold the wedding and the whole day was awesome, the only downside being that only Boddingtons or Stella 4% were available at the town hall bar. Neither appealed so in the end I stuck with wine, before obviously moving on to the gin. If there's a finer spirit than gin I've yet to find it.

For some foolish reason I decided to travel from London Euston to Chester using London Midland. Actually there was a pretty good reason - it would of cost about £100 return to use Virgin Trains rather than the £30 return to use London Midland. At that price I knew the journey would be grim but in typical British train operator style they managed to make it even grimmer then it should have been. On the way up our train to Crewe instead decided to give up at Northampton, which is understandable as Northampton does have have that effect, but it was annoying having to change trains. In total it took about fours hours to get to Chester, which felt like an eternity on the cramped London Midland trains. Coming back was pretty straightforward but again being wedged into a seat with precious little legroom for 3 1/2 hours wasn't much fun. Next time I'll just pay the beardy bastard his ransom.

This was my first visit to Chester and I took the opportunity to visit some pubs up there. The night before the ceremony a few of us met up for a drink at the Brewery Tap. The building used to be a Jacobean meeting hall and it has been preserved (or restored) very well indeed. The bar had an enticing number of hand pumps on display. Eagerly I went up to the bar to order and was met with the cold, hard stare of a server who didn't seem to want to be there at all. I politely ordered a beer and attempted a bit of light hearted humour and was met with a look so fierce I thought I might burst into flames on the spot. The pub is the tap for the Spitting Feathers brewery and I went ahead and ordered a pint of their own Thirst Quencher. This was a easy drinking ale with a flavoursome hoppy finish that tickled the back of the tongue. Business as Usual from Derby Brewing Company was up next, and this aptly named bitter was a solid, workmanlike beer that got the job done. The final beer, and sadly the most disappointing, was Celtica from Great Orme, with limp insipid flavours that failed to excite.

The place was packed on a Friday night although one table was filled with customers who appeared to be about 15 years old. It was like being in a scene from Hot Fuzz and I half expected Simon Pegg to burst in and arrest the lot of them. Despite the cold service a very pleasurable evening was had here, although I don't know if I would be rushing back.

On the day of the ceremony itself there was a gap between lunch and the reception, and a group of us managed to sneak off to a cosy little pub near the town hall called Pied Bull. We blundered in to this small three room pub, a bit merry from the festivities and managed to grab a table in what appeared to be the "dining area" judging from the fact that every table had place mats and cutlery, and perhaps the most obvious sign, everybody sitting there was eating standard pub grub. Unlike some pubs the staff didn't seem to mind that we were only having a drink in the dining area. The wedding lunch had left us well lubricated and our conversation was getting a little bit loud. I got the feeling we were pissing off some of the other customers who had clearly come in for a quiet drink and to avoid oiks like us. The main clue was that most of them left the vicinity about 10-15 minutes after we'd sat at the table. I'm not proud of our behaviour, although I've seen much worse, but the friendly staff seemed fairly laid back about the whole thing.

As for the ale, as luck would have it they had a mini beer festival on. They must have known I would be in town. Things got off to a good start with a Marble Bitter. I always enjoy Marble beers and you don't see them too often in the South, so I always take the opportunity to have a half. Marble rarely do things wrong and this was an accomplished English bitter which went down very well. The Pied Bull is also a microbrewery creating a wide range of beers, all of them named with a terrible pun revolving around bulls. I opted for a half of Quaffa-bull (hnnngh) and it certainly lived up to its cheesy name. This was a easy drinking golden ale with a pleasant hoppy taste. Last was the Magic Rock Carnival, a delicious session pale ale which was on excellent form.

The following day after the wedding I thought I would treat The Lovely Jemma to lunch to what was described in the Good Beer Guide as a "upmarket" pub. Now a "upmarket pub" in the guide can mean anything from a place that actually uses real fish in its scampi to a place where the customers houses are worth more than a small African country and it's going to cost you six quid a pint and a large glass of wine requires a credit check. The pub was the Old Harkers Arms, a large place with a lovely position alongside the canal on the outskirts of Chester town centre. It certainly was upmarket but in a good way, with the pub furnished with lovely oak tables and chairs, the walls lined with little antique trinkets, and the place just had an overall feel that it attracted people with a little bit of money. I knew this place was truly upmarket when an older gentleman came in to read the Sunday Times, although he let the side down a little bit by ordering Weston's cider.

There was a good selection of ale on offer with blackboards displaying what's on. The Snowdonia from Purple Moose and Cheshire Cat by Weetwood were both on excellent form and immaculately kept. The Snowdonia was an excellent, easy drinking bitter and the Cheshire was a creamy, light beer with a stand-out dry finish. The food was excellent, although the portions were a bit too big. TLJ went for a roast beef lunch where the chef appeared to put any vegetable he could find in the kitchen on to the plate, while my haddock had clearly led a good life as it was huge, and there was a very generous portion of chips and mushy peas to go with it. I don't often get defeated by pub food, being used to miserly London portions, but this meal got me.

All the pubs I visited in Chester were of a good high standard, and as we walked around the historic town centre there were plenty of other places which looked good which we may have to visit if we ever visit Chester again. A great weekend and the only disappointment was that I didn't see any cast members from Hollyoaks out and about. Maybe next time!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Port Street Beer House, Manchester

Ah the Northern Quarter of Manchester. An area that seems to have been "up and coming" since Manchester existed. It's a weird jumble of trendy cafes and bars mixed with derelict buildings and depressing car parks, where some chancer has stuck a sign into his patch of gravel saying "Parking £5" and hoping some chump will go for it. It makes me think of what Camden Town must have been like before all the London wankers moved in and completely destroyed any character the area once had.

Opposite one of the chancer car parks is a little bar called the Port Street Beer House. I'd heard good things about this place, and as it was derby day in town I thought this would be a good place to avoid the football crowds. We got there at opening, feeling a little worse for wear following the stag night celebrations the night before. Still a little hangover wasn't going to stop us from enjoying some tasty ales. To be honest if I didn't know about this place I would of walked past it without a second thought. I didn't think it looked much like a pub from the outside, with the plasticky tables and chairs and bright lighting making the place look more like a cafe. We were even a little confused about which door to use to actually get into the place - although this might have been because of our hungover state.

As we walked in the first thing to hit us was a tremendous smell of bleach. Granted we were there at opening on a Sunday but they could have deep cleaned the place a little earlier. There's nothing welcoming about getting a face full of chlorine when walking into a bar. The smell was so bad that my eyes were nearly watering, and we had to retreat from the ground floor bar to upstairs, which features an odd mixture of cosy pub booths and more of the cafe style tables and chairs.

As promised in reviews of this place, the beer selection was good and in excellent condition. The staff knew their stuff, and they had a long chat with one of my friends about beer, although the atmosphere did sour a little bit when he mentioned that he works at BrewDog. Apparently this is not always a popular thing to say at craft beer bars! There was a great selection of bottled beers available but I stuck to the cask ale. First up was You Love Us from Hopcraft Brewing. Despite the arrogance of the name this was actually pretty good, bursting with hoppy goodness. Jacobs Ladder from Buxton Brewery was another winner, a low strength session ale bursting with flavour. There's nothing better than a beer with plenty of taste and not getting pissed after two pints, like every American IPA ever. Last up was Three Swords from the Kirkstall Brewery, which was a very solid bitter but was certainly the most "traditional" of the beers I tried, which made it a little boring.

Overall our group had a good time at the Beer House, despite all nursing hangovers. However I wonder how much business this place gets from the casual customer. It's not particularly welcoming from the outside, especially as it doesn't even really look a pub. Even if I had gone in as a casual customer I probably would have immediately walked out after being hit with a face full of bleach. Of course the bleach smell may be an unfortunate one off but you've got to have consistent quality in the pub business. The craft ale pub scene is exciting but ultimately these places are pubs, and you've got to be on the ball every time to attract customers. I doubt the craft ale scene is immune to market forces, no matter how unstoppable it seems at the moment.

Next week is a look around some very good pubs in the "quaint" city of Chester. Hope you can join me then. Cheers!